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Major League Baseball draws about 70million fans to its ballparks each year, generates more than $4billion in annual revenue and is wildly popular around most corners of the globe.
And by its own admission, it has a relevance problem.
This month’s “Spider-Man 2” flap — in which Columbia Pictures cut a deal to promote the upcoming blockbuster film in MLB ballparks and then a day later killed plans for the movie’s logos on the bases — was never about an immediate cash grab. The paltry $3.6million MLB agreed to for the June11-13 promotion ensured that much.
Rather, the Spider-Man deal was about finding new ways to create fans among children ages 8 to 14, a group rapidly becoming indifferent toward baseball, as well as discovering new applications for the cluttered mass that is corporate sponsorship.
Making gains in either area has been, and will continue to be, a difficult, angst-ridden task for MLB. Its typical fan is more than 40 years old, much older than several other leading sports. And baseball’s rich history — something MLB vigorously sells every day — makes promotions like the Spider-Man deal that much more jarring.
Still, marketing itself in a much younger and more modern fashion is assuming front-burner status among MLB executives and promises to be one of the game’s highest off-field priorities for the foreseeable future.
“Baseball is no longer the killer application for every age group. That is the big challenge we face. We’re having to work harder to give kids a reason to go to the ballpark,” said Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president for business. Brosnan played a lead role in brokering the Spider-Man promotion, which will continue next month with all its other elements, including logos in on-deck circles and related merchandise given away at ballparks.
“Yes, some alterations were made in that instance, but we absolutely cannot retreat. Kids are getting just bombarded with options. There is no way we can or will rest on our laurels,” Brosnan said.
The early consensus on the Spider-Man promotion was baseball moved far too fast, too soon and too clumsily. Despite corporate names and logos festooned in and around every MLB ballpark, fans clearly hold what happens between the white lines to a much higher, and perhaps sacrosanct, level. The same could be said for baseball itself compared to sports like hockey and auto racing that are drenched in corporate imagery. And some team executives, including Chicago White Sox owner and Bud Selig-confidant Jerry Reinsdorf, didn’t even know about the effort until it was publicly announced.
It’s not the first time MLB rushed after the youth market, only to have the aggressiveness backfire. Two years ago, MLB developed an ad campaign called “Dynamic Superhumans.” The animated TV and print ads depicted several players, even some as spindly as Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez, as bulked-up musclemen. The advertising arrived the same month Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco made charges of widespread steroid use in baseball, claims that fester to this day in the form of the federal investigation of BALCO. The ads were quickly redrawn to lessen the size of the players.
Uniform ads for Ricoh used during two games in Japan to start the regular season and an aborted attempt last year to use special American and National League uniforms for the All-Star Game, while not ostensibly youth-driven, provoked a similarly widespread negative reaction.
“They have sunk to a greedy new low,” consumer advocate Ralph Nader said.
The struggles with younger children, interestingly, contrast against some baseball marketing successes with teens and young adults. For example, last year’s MLB Road Show, in which baseball surprisingly sponsored the Ozzfest and Lollapalooza hard rock tours, gained wide favor with fans and musicians alike.
Many involved in baseball believe the rules of engagement toward youth have long since changed and continue to exist in a state of flux.
“Kids are so much more aware of the world now and how things work,” said Stephen Keener, president and chief executive of Little League Baseball. “I’m 46, and I’m from the generation of World Series games in the daytime. I didn’t have ‘SportsCenter,’ cable TV, the Internet, video games and so forth. And not all that exposure is bad. Kids today are very, very smart. But it obviously means you have to find their language and speak to them in that language.
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